By Ann Ogden Gaffney

These are strange times. Everything looks normal – the sun is shining, the birds are singing, spring flowers are cheerfully pushing up out of the earth. But for those of us who have had our lives unexpectedly put on hold by COVID-19, it doesn’t feel normal one bit.

It’s hard to grasp just how much has changed in such a short time. To say it’s stressful would be an understatement. In many ways I feel lucky that my cancer diagnoses have already taught me how from one day to the next our lives can change on a dime. I also realize how lucky I am that I know where I can find comfort in difficult times: my kitchen.

I find the act of cooking really helps me chill out when life can seem out of control, when it’s going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. Sound familiar? This habit of cooking to bust stress started years earlier when I worked in the fashion industry. Glamorous as it may seem from the outside, it’s a tough business. I had a top level design director job at a huge multinational designer clothing company where the work environment was super stressful — in fact, it was toxic!

On Sundays I’d settle in to bake for the week ahead, simple things like muffins and tea breads. I didn’t actually need them, but cooking requires you to be present. So for a few hours I would lose myself in the simple manual tasks of baking them. As I worked, my professional anxieties simply vanished. And as I pulled what I’d made out of the oven, the sense of pleasure and achievement eclipsed that horrible sense of being stymied at work earlier in the day. I felt wonderful.

I have cooked my way through three cancer diagnoses and now out of nowhere comes the coronavirus and, like me, more of us are being forced to stay at home. I’m no stranger to working all day and having to get food on the table in a hurry, so being home seemed like a holiday at first, but after a few days of ordering in and binge watching, I realized I wanted — no, needed — to cook. I felt myself drawn more and more to my kitchen. Not just to feel soothed and grounded, but to make lemonade in a time of lemons, to cook for the fun and pleasure of it again now that I had the time.

With this newfound freedom, I plan to:

  • Lose myself in vegetable prep as I finally get around to new recipes I’ve been meaning to make or test
  • Use those exotic looking beans I’d bought
  • Indulge in baking bread instead of going to the store for it
  • Find new ways to cook with greens
  • Make classic British comfort foods

In short, to have fun and lose myself in cooking.

There is meditative pleasure in the actual labor of cooking, and relaxation in its repetitive actions. It is wonderful to stay present and work mindfully in an activity that results in instant gratification, and the pleasure of being able to eat what you’ve made and to nourish those you love. Although you may start out doing it for your own well-being, when you cook to ease your stress, you ultimately create tasty, nutritious food that feeds others too.

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